Charlie was born in 1934, the accidental child of a 15-year-old runaway. She was already drinking heavily and being used as the sexual plaything of a succession of older men. Charlie’s birth certificate listed him as “no name Maddox.” Nobody was ever quite sure who the father was. As a toddler, his mother once ran out of money while out drinking and sold the boy to a waitress for a pitcher of beer. This was probably considered a joke, until the young woman finished her drink, got up and left her son in the bar. A few days later Charlie’s uncle tracked him down and retrieved him. Aged 5, Charlie’s mother was convicted of robbery and imprisoned for three years, the boy spent the time being passed around a string of uncaring relatives.
Aged 12 and already displaying a range of delinquent behaviours, his mother put Charlie up to be fostered, but no home could be found. A court placed him in an orphanage which he hated. Ten months later he ran away and found his mother. She sent him away. At 13 he was charged with robbing convenience stores and sent to a juvenile detention centre where he was repeatedly raped and physically abused. Three years later he escaped and went on a crime spree before being caught and detained. Despite testing with a high IQ, at age 17 he was illiterate. He spent his twenties in and out of jail for a succession of petty offences including theft and pimping.
Charlie’s one love was music and while in prison he learned to play guitar. In 1967 he moved to San Francisco and began attracting a small following of friends and admirers to form a commune. They were won over by his charisma and enchanted by the radical countercultural beliefs, informed by a hotchpotch of scientology, Satanism and white supremacy. Under Charlie’s instruction, members of the group went on to commit at least two murders before the evening of August 6th 1969, when the gang brutally slaughtered Leno and Rosemary LaBianca and the heavily pregnant Sharon Tate, young wife of the film director Roman Polanski.
In the roll call of violent criminals of the 20th Century, few have the monstrous status of Charles Manson, and few so deserve it. All accounts of his life, including his own ghostwritten autobiography, portray a wicked, manipulative psychopath who revels in the death and agony of others and who, to this day, shows little sign of remorse or regret for the appalling crimes he committed and inspired. Those same accounts simultaneously explain the pitiably desperate early life experiences that undoubtedly created the monster. Those two interpretations are not incompatible. Anyone who works with the issues of violent crime, in which I include writers and journalists, needs to be able to wrestle with them both simultaneously. They are not balanced on a scale, where the higher one is raised, the lower the other becomes. One of the most idiotic things ever said by a serving Prime Minister was surely the statement by John Major that sometimes we need to “understand a little less, and condemn a little more” as if condemnation was the price to be paid for understanding. It isn’t. It is possible to understand and still condemn.
In yesterday’s Observer, Victoria Coren-Mitchell wrote of the need for nuance in considering cases like Roman Polanski, who in 1977 drugged and anally raped a 13 year old girl, Samantha Geimer. After an immensely complicated, and well-publicised trial process, Polanski jumped the country and has been living in exile ever since. It was immensely disappointing that in making this case, Coren-Mitchell’s own grasp of nuance repeatedly deserted her.
Several other bloggers (and hundreds of commenters) have already picked up on her problematic use of phrases like “had sex with” instead of “raped” and the frankly bizarre suggestion that the issue was complicated by her opinion that “Polanski’s work is filled with beauty and humanity.” However I think the real problem with her piece is deeper than that. In calling for a nuanced discussion, Mitchell-Coren is attacking a very large and clumsy straw man – the very opposite of a nuanced approach.
Her argument boils down to saying just because Polanski did a terrible thing, that doesn’t necessarily mean he is a terrible man. Who, seriously, devotes more than a millisecond to pondering this question? Not many of us now believe that individuals carry an essence of pure evil. We all understand that people are products of their environments and their experiences, and when we as a society decide that individuals should face consequences for their crimes, we are punishing not the person, but the deed.
The anger aimed at Roman Polanski is not rooted in a belief that he is a monster. Monster is as monster does, and that is as true of Polanski as it is of Manson or of any of the innumerable rapists, murderers and violent criminals who fill our jails – the vast majority of whom have similarly distressing and heart-breaking backgrounds and childhoods. The anger aimed at Polanski is rooted first in the knowledge that he committed a horrible sex crime against a child. Secondly, it is rooted in his absconding from due process and punishment, living a life of luxury. Thirdly it is rooted in the shameful behaviour of the Hollywood and media glitterati who would, it seems, grant a free pass to their own to rape children providing they make pretty movies. By failing to acknowledge or discuss any of this, Mitchell-Coren confuses nuance with ambivalence. There are plenty of aspects to the Polanski case that require nuance and careful thought. That does not mean we need to be ambivalent about the crime, or the man who committed it. In calling for nuance, she fails dismally on her own terms.